Two top GOP gubernatorial candidates look to geography for a boost

Jeremy Duda and Evan Wyloge//April 14, 2014

Two top GOP gubernatorial candidates look to geography for a boost

Jeremy Duda and Evan Wyloge//April 14, 2014

(Illustration by Gabe Turner/Arizona Capitol Times)
(Illustration by Gabe Turner/Arizona Capitol Times)

As a primary field becomes more crowded, the portion of votes needed to win the nomination becomes smaller and smaller. With as many as seven or eight Republican gubernatorial candidates on the ballot this year, any advantage can help lead to a win.

For some, the advantage may be geography.

Mathematically, a winner could finish with just 14.3 percent of the vote, though that’s highly unlikely. What is much more likely is a winner who takes 25 to 30 percent — or if the race tightens — 20 to 25 percent of the vote.

With figures that low, the geographic advantage afforded to two candidates in particular could boost their chances in August.

Mesa Mayor Scott Smith’s campaign has strong name identification in Mesa and the surrounding areas.

Secretary of State Ken Bennett’s career sprang from local politics in Prescott and the surrounding Yavapai County. Throughout his nearly 30 years in various public offices, that region and other rural areas around the state have been the source of his support, and his campaign believes that will remain true this year.

Historic voting data show both of these traditionally conservative areas could deliver significant voting blocs, especially in light of the number of candidates.

State Treasurer Doug Ducey, who lives in Paradise Valley, and former GoDaddy executive Christine Jones, who lives in Phoenix, are leading candidates as well. But they have never represented their specific cities or regions in office, and aren’t well-known to the public as having specific ties to those areas. Ducey has only held one statewide office, and Jones is a first-time candidate.

Bennett and Smith, by contrast, are synonymous with the areas they’ve represented and are relatively well-known to residents as local representatives.

Any advantage helps

In 2010, about 8.2 percent of the nearly 586,000 votes cast in the GOP primary for governor came from Mesa, while slightly more than 6 percent came from Yavapai County. And in prior elections, the numbers were higher.

Mesa contributed about 10.6 percent of Republican primary votes and Yavapai County made up 7.5 percent in the 2002 gubernatorial race. In the 2006 primary, 8.6 percent of Republican votes came from Mesa and 6.2 percent from Yavapai County.

If Bennett and Smith are able to substantially outperform their opponents in those two areas, their geographic bases could be an essential factor for their campaigns. The numbers could get substantially better if Bennett’s appeal extends to other rural counties and Smith can capitalize on his popularity and name identification in other parts of the East Valley.

Starting with a geographic base isn’t enough to win a race by itself, said Margaret Kenski, a Republican pollster. But in a crowded and closely contested race, any advantage helps, she said.

“I would look at those (bases) as advantages in extremely tight races with no other particular distinguishing factors between the candidates,” Kenski said. “In this case, though, it’s a statewide race. (That geographic advantage) is terribly important.”

Most observers view Bennett, Smith, Ducey and Jones as the main contenders. And if the eventual GOP nominee is able to win with less than 30 percent, as many are predicting, there may not be a lot of distance between those four candidates.

For example, in the 2010 Republican primary for the old north Phoenix-based 3rd Congressional District, the top four candidates in the 10-way contest were separated by only 4.5 percentage points.

If the 2014 gubernatorial primary were to turn out with the same vote distribution as the 2010 CD3 primary, the winner of a seven-way race would win with 23.5 percent of the vote, which would be about 137,675 votes. If it turns out to be an eight-way race, the winner would have just under 23 percent, which would equal about 134,745 votes, based on the 2010 turnout.

Given those low numbers, the votes Bennett and Smith pull from their geographic bases could be critical.

Winning votes in Mesa and Prescott

In the May 2008 runoff for his first term as mayor, Smith won with 27,171 votes. In his 2012 re-election, in which he ran unopposed, he received 52,302 votes.

Obviously, Smith can’t count on getting every vote in Mesa, any more than Bennett can count on running the table in Yavapai County. But Constantin Querard, a Republican political consultant who is running GOP Sen. Al Melvin’s gubernatorial campaign, said the number of votes Smith pulls from Mesa could be significant.

“Even if he gets half that vote, that’s 4 percent toward the 23 he wants or whatever it is. If he knows that one out of every six votes he’s going to get in this race is coming from his own town, that offers a certain peace of mind,” Querard said.

Brian Murray, a consultant for Smith’s campaign, said the mayor isn’t running a “geographic campaign.” But Smith will play to the advantages he has, Murray said, and that includes his base in Mesa.

“I don’t think anybody should discount the fact that the mayor of Mesa is probably going to do quite well in Mesa, and from an electoral standpoint that is extremely helpful,” Murray said.

Similarly, Bennett’s campaign consultant, Kyle Moyer, says the same about the secretary of state’s home turf.

“I would venture that Bennett will do very well in rural Arizona,” Moyer said. “And we will see trending on that as we move through the cycle.”

Moyer pointed to Bennett’s eight years on the Prescott Town Council in the 1980s and his eight years in the Legislature representing the surrounding areas as evidence of strong support in the region.

Having dealt with issues like water and forestry and land management at the local and state level will speak to the rural voters, where the impact of those issues is felt.

Bennett and Smith both have outer layers to their geographic bases that could help. Mesa anchors the East Valley-centered 5th Congressional District, where Smith enjoys high name identification, Murray said.

If the scope of an East Valley base is expanded to include all of CD5, those voters accounted for 12.9 percent of the GOP gubernatorial primary vote in 2010, 14.6 percent in 2006 and 15.4 percent in 2002.

In Bennett’s 2010 secretary of state bid, he did best in Cochise, Graham, La Paz, Mohave, Pinal and Yavapai Counties — all rural counties. Bennett even got more votes than Gov. Jan Brewer in Maricopa, Pinal, Santa Cruz and Yavapai Counties, all of which, except Maricopa, are rural counties.

The 13 rural counties accounted for 24.3 percent of the GOP gubernatorial primary vote in 2010, 25.4 percent in 2006 and 26 percent in 2002.

Bennett’s rural strengths could serve him well in other parts of the state that are often resentful of the Phoenix area and the influence it exerts. Nathan Sproul, a Republican political consultant, said rural voters from outside Yavapai County may warm to Bennett simply for being a rural candidate.

“Whether it’s four-year community college or emergency room care, there’s all sorts of issues where rural Arizona voters feel like they’re the red-headed stepchild in the room,” Sproul said. “Bennett’s geographic base could very well be much larger than Yavapai County.”

Sproul said Bennett’s bigger problem will be having the financial resources to take advantage of that rural appeal. Unlike Ducey, Jones and Smith, Bennett is running with Clean Elections money, which will leave him with only about $800,000 for the primary.

Murray was skeptical that Bennett’s rural appeal would extend beyond the borders of Yavapai County. The consultant, who worked for two former members of Congress who represented rural areas, said Bennett will do well on his own turf, but questioned whether his popularity would extend beyond Yavapai’s borders.

Not everyone believes geography will be much help to Bennett or Smith. Lobbyist Kurt Davis, a longtime Republican politico, said the importance of geographic bases is widely overstated, especially in primaries.

“None of the candidates typically have enormous, high name identification. So voters don’t always have a sense of where they come from,” Davis said.

To the extent that geography plays a role in such elections, Davis said it has a greater impact in general elections. Primaries are lower-turnout elections, he said, where issues and ideology are of paramount importance.

He said Smith, as a mayor, could get a small boost because local government is closer to the voters and its leaders are well-known to them. But that won’t necessarily translate into votes in the primary.

Sproul agreed. The consultant said many GOP primary voters in Mesa are very conservative, which may not bode well for Smith, who is viewed as a moderate or centrist Republican.

“Ideologically, most Republican primary voters who live in Mesa are not going to look at Scott Smith favorably,” Sproul said. “There’s a decent chance that the Republican primary voters of Mesa will perceive him as less conservative than they would like. Scott Smith is not mayor of Mesa because of Republican primary voters turning out.”

Paul Whetten, GOP chairman of the Mesa-based Legislative District 25, didn’t think the mayor’s moderate image or pragmatic politics would hurt him in Mesa. The city has seen a tremendous turnaround during his tenure, and voters will take note, he said.

Whetten acknowledged that Smith may have some problems with the conservative right. At a recent LD25 Republican meeting where Smith spoke, Whetten said, conservative activists distributed flyers describing him as the “Agenda 21” mayor, a reference to a non-binding United Nations resolution that has become the focus of popular conservative conspiracy theories.

But Smith stood up and refuted the flyers point by point, and ultimately won over a lot of people in the crowd, Whetten said.

“The people who were at that meeting were the hardcore conservatives. And I could see a lot of wheels turning,” he said.

Mesa Republicans won’t automatically vote for Smith because he’s their mayor, Whetten said. But he’ll have an easier job getting votes there because of his record as mayor.